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Nicaraguan education: a giant and inspiring task

The new Nicaraguan education : a giant and inspiring task

Interview with Miguel de Castilla, Minister of Education
By Karla Jacobs,

At the end of November Tortilla con Sal had the opportunity to talk with the Education Minister, Miguel de Castilla Urbina, about the work he and his team have been carrying out over the last 22 months. De Castilla is a sociologist, educator and education administrator with vast experience in all three fields. He has published over 500 articles and dozens of books about the problems, achievements and challenges of education in Nicaragua and the region. He was vice minister of Education during the first sandinista government of the 1980s.

In this interview he talks about how the public education system had been stripped bare by the previous governments resulting in the exclusion of around 34% of Nicaraguan school aged children and adolescents. He goes on to talk at length about the giant and inspiring task the Ministry of Education has set itself of transforming the public education system so as not only to provide access to education for all Nicaraguan children, adolescents and even adults, but also to create a system where students play the role of protagonists and where Nicaraguan culture and the national reality are the bases upon which, collectively and inclusively, the New Nicaraguan Education is built.

TcS: The three governments that preceded the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity introduced systematic cuts in the Education Ministry's Budget. What state did you and your colleagues find the public education system in when you took office in January 2007?

Miguel de Castilla: The most important aspect of the Nicaraguan public school system when we took office was that it had been privatized; pupils paid to attend school. Pupils were charged for the matriculation, they were charged monthly fees. Parents were given payment receipts for having their kids in school. Within the schools everything had to be paid for. All the services the schools provided were sold to pupils. Of course this meant it was very difficult for many families to send their kids to school.

We believe that around 100,000 girls and boys would not have matriculated in 2007 if schools had continued to charge for the education they provided. Five days before the matriculation for the 2007 school year began the Ministry of Education published a ministerial decree eliminating all monetary charges in Nicaraguan public schools. Year by year in Nicaragua the number of matriculations grow by around 40,000. But in 2007 there were 140,000 new matriculations. 100,000 of those new pupils would not have matriculated if we had not undone the privatization of our public education.

Another mechanism that had been introduced as part of the perverted way in which the education system used to be run was the method used by the Ministry of Education to fund schools. The Ministry of Education sent money directly to the schools. The quantity was calculated depending on the number of pupils the school had. If, for example, a school had 100 pupils, then a certain amount of money was sent, if a school had 500 pupils then that amount was multiplied by five, if a school had 1,000 pupils it was multiplied by ten, etc.

The school used this money to pay the teachers, to pay for repairs to the school building, and to buy everything that was needed in the school. But the schools were not required to inform the Ministry of Education about how the money was spent therefore the Ministry had zero control over the money. The money was sent to the school and after that nothing was known about it. The Ministry of Education never received any budgets or expenditure reports about how the money was spent.

This system resulted in widespread corruption in the handling of the money, the most visible example being that school directors would send false reports about the number of pupils they had matriculated in the school. They exaggerated the number of matriculations. If a school had matriculated 100 pupils, for example, then the directors might inform the Ministry that 200 matriculations had taken place in order to receive twice as much money.

We carried out an investigation into this phenomenon in March 2007 as a result of which we discovered that around about 125,000 pupils registered in the matriculation of 2006 had never existed. They were phantom pupils, as we call them. There were 125,000 pupils that had never existed but the schools had received money for them. That money that the schools had received generally went into the pockets of the directors, teachers and other school staff.

So, as you can see, the public schools that we inherited in 2007 were not just privatized schools, they were also corrupt schools. The Nicaraguan public school system had become a system where money took first place and corruption was an everyday occurence. And in that system, in that sort of environment, in that crucible, our children were being educated. It was an environment in which forces competed to make greater profit and in which knowledge had been converted into a product like any other which was bought and sold on the marketplace.

Obviously we had to bring an end to all of this before we took over the Ministry of Education. And because several of us had worked as social investigators in the field of education we were aware of the situation within the public system. So as soon as we took over the ministry we issued a ministerial decree in which all charges were eliminated within the public school system. After that we began the process of replacing the model by which schools were funded which, as I have explained, encouraged corruption.

TcS: If you could talk a little about the work you and your team have carried out with the aim of overcoming this corruption within the public education system, and also if you could talk about the fundamental principles on which the Ministry of Education's work has been based over the last 22 months.

Miguel de Castilla: Well, that was the first step; eliminating charges within schools, and then eliminating the mechanism by which schools were funded and creating another funding mechanism. But what we have been doing here in Nicaragua goes beyond simple measures. What we have been doing is constructing an altogether different concept which we call the Participative Revolution in Education. This concept includes the involvement of NGOs, of civil society, of parents, of teachers. During the last 22 months we have been in the process of constructing a profound transformation in the education system in our country that we refer to as the Participative Revolution in Education.

As part of this process we carried out a national consultation project that involved 17,500 people from across the country, among them teachers, parents, students, NGOs. We sent the plan for the consultation in digital format to 153 civil society organizations so they could contribute to it and give us their feedback about the proposed transformation of the national curriculum. Nineteen departmental teachers' forums took place and another nineteen departmental parents' forums took place where what was discussed were people's ideas what should be taught in our schools, and what should be learned in our schools. During 2008, based on those experiences, the new curriculum has been created.

We have transformed the educational model in Nicaragua. The new model for Nicaraguan education is now based on five fundamental pillars: First of all, the new curriculum which has been completed and will come into operation in January 2009: The second pillar are the Evaluation, Planning and Educative Training Workshops which we refer to as TEPCEs. These workshops take place once a month with the aim of evaluating, planning and contextualizing the curriculum. The TEPCEs take place in the schools which have been classified as Base Schools as part of the model of Educational Nuclei which we have introduced: This is the fourth pillar - the Educational Nuclei. An Educational Nucleus is a determined space within the national territory where there is a Base School and a number of Neighbouring Schools.There are 1,423 Educational Nuclei across the country: The fourth pillar are the classrooms, which we are rebuilding and rehabilitating: And the fifth pillar are the teachers who give life to all of the other four components. The teacher is the very heart of the Sandinista Revolution's Model of Quality in Education. This model has been created exclusively by Nicaraguans, without imitating models from other countries and without involving any foreign consultants or advisers.

So as I was saying, we have divided the national school system into nuclei. In every municipality of Nicaragua there is a certain number of Educational Nuclei. Each month an Evaluation, Planning and Educational Training Workshop (TEPCE) takes place in each Base School with the participation of the teachers from all the schools within that Educational Nucleus. These TEPCEs take place on the last Friday of each month with the participation of all 47,000 teachers within our national education system. During the TEPCE the last month's educational experience is evaluated and the teaching for the coming month is planned. The same process is used for preschool and primary and secondary education.

So we are involving the teachers in a process of profound training. We are also transforming the curriculum of the teacher training colleges.

Apart from this we are building schools. We inherited 27,500 schools, but of those schools there were 15,000 classrooms which were in a state of semi destruction. So we have also been involved in the task of rebuilding classrooms across the country.

All these changes we have been carrying out within the Nicaraguan school system over the last 22 months are very significant, very important. They are changes that actually produce a different quality of education. What I mean to say is that the type of education provided 22 months ago has nothing to do with the type of education provided in our schools today.

Parallel to all that we are carrying out the National Literacy Campaign. Two years ago the illiteracy rate in Nicaragua was 30%. Today we have reduced that to just 7%. That is the lowest illiteracy rate ever in Nicaraguan history. In other words, today, in November 2008, Nicaragua has a lower illiteracy rate than ever before.

The last time anything was done to try to reduce illiteracy was during the Popular Sandinista Revolution when the illiteracy rate was reduced from 53% to 12.9%. Today after two years of the current literacy campaign, we have reduced illiteracy to 7% and we hope to have reduced that further to less than 5% by next July in order to be able to declare Nicaragua a territory free of illiteracy.

So all these different activities represent multiple battles. We also carry out a school meals program. In Nicaragua around one million children receive a school meal consisting of rice, beans, cereal, tortilla, etc. every day. And in around 1,000 schools across the country school vegetable gardens are being developed which not only permit pupils to learn how to cultivate food but also allow school meals to be complemented with freshly grown produce.

What all of this demonstrates is that the Ministry of Education is actively promoting justice and quality within the public education system in numerous different ways. We struggle to make education in Nicaragua more just by creating access to public education for the largest number of children and young people possible. We do this with the school meals program and by distributing school materials, for example. During 2008 we distributed around 400,000 rucksacks and 200,000 school uniforms and pairs of shoes to children and adolescents from severely impoverished rural families.

So it is not just that we do not charge pupils to attend school, but on top of that we give the poorest pupils uniforms, shoes, books, jotters, rucksacks and school meals. So Nicaraguan schools today are not just free, but they actually distribute wealth to the pupils with the aim of encouraging children to come to school and not to dessert the classroom. And once the kids are in school we try to give them the best quality of education possible, with a good curriculum, with well trained teachers.

TcS: While it is true that the government increased the amount of money designated to the Ministry of Education this year, the institution's budget still seems very small considering the nation's educational needs. How do you and your team deal with this problem?

Miguel de Castilla: Yes, effectively, one of the characteristics of Nicaragua's poverty is the country's small budget. One must remember that Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Latin American and Caribbean region. This means that the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is very small, and its budget is as well. Here in the Ministry of Education we are assigned just 4.2% of the country's GDP. Considering the size of the Nicaraguan GDP, though, we would need between 7 and 8% of the GDP in order to cover all our costs.

However, we have been lucky enough to receive a good quantity of foreign aid from governments and organizations keen to contribute to education and children's welfare in Nicaragua. For example the Dutch, Danish and Canadian governments are all important contributors. The same is true of the US government which collaborates with the Ministry of Education through its Agency for International Development (USAID).

Additionally organizations like UNICEF, FENAP (the UN population fund), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization all contribute to the Education Ministry's fundamental activities. These governments and organizations help to subsidize the small budget we have which would only cover the costs of maintenance of the school buildings, teacher's salaries and the bureaucratic costs necessary in an institution such as this one.

We are designated a very small amount of the Nicaraguan budget, but with that very small amount and with the Nicaraguan people's goodwill - especially the teachers' goodwill because Nicaraguan teachers are not well paid - we are able to do amazing things and we are able to carry forward this country's education system.

This whole process of educational transformation (what I was talking about earlier to do with the TEPCEs etc.), in a rich country, a developed country, it would be a very, very expensive process. In Nicaragua, however, it is not expensive due to the degree of volunteerism of our teachers and of the population in general.

Another example is the program "Constructors of the Future" as part of which young Nicaraguans work voluntarily building new schools. The Literacy Campaign is made possible by thousands of young people who teach voluntarily. Nicaraguans, and especially young Nicaraguans, have demonstrated great will and capacity to contribute voluntarily when it comes to education. So our small budget is compensated by people's devotion towards key educational activities in Nicaragua.

TcS: Considering all of this, would you say that teachers and other public education system workers can expect a significant pay rise in the coming years?

Miguel de Castilla: Well, the budget for teachers' salaries is growing. Each year, in line with the General Education Law, the budget has to grow. In 2007 the monthly salary for primary school teachers grew by 500 cordobas [US$1 = 19.77 cordobas on Dec. 1st 2008], and for secondary school teachers the monthly salary grew by 700 cordobas. These pay rises were repeated in 2008. At the moment similar pay rises are being negotiated for 2009.

We would like to bring in significant pay rises, spectacular pay rises. But I cannot imagine such rises being introduced unless the Ministry of Education's budget also experiences a dramatic increase. As long as it is not possible to increase the budget significantly, and with all the current complications at an international level with the financial crisis, etc, I am not optimistic about the possibility of a significant pay rise for our teachers.

TcS: To what extent does the government's relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) affect decisions concerning teachers' salaries?

Miguel de Castilla: Well, our government analyzes and agrees not just teachers' salaries but all public sector workers' salaries with the IMF. So if up until now the teachers' annual pay rise has been around 500 cordobas, then I do not think there will be problems [between the government and the IMF] if in the future similar rises are implemented.

The salaries of all public sector workers - teachers, police officers, health workers - are agreed as part of the economic program with the IMF. So I do not see a possibility of change in this regard.

TcS: I would like to go back to talk about the reforms that have been made to the national curriculum. What do the reforms consist of? And with what educational and social objectives have they been implemented?

Miguel de Castilla: The reforms are multiple. They form part of an integral process of change. Here, rather than curriculum reforms, what has taken place is a transformation of educational content.

Much new educational content emerged during the Great National Curriculum Consultation which is being introduced today as part of the new curriculum. For example, economics, sociology and philosophy had been eliminated from the secondary school curriculum in Nicaragua. Today those subjects are being reincorporated.

The secondary school curriculum is being completely transformed to include a strong polytechnic emphasis. By doing this we aim to provide students with more than just a ticket to get into university. We want to also be able to provide those students who are unable to go to university with the option of obtaining skilled work after leaving school. We are not talking about every day technical education, but about the possibility for all secondary school pupils to learn a skill, any skill, which will later serve as a work option.

So these are profound transformations in the secondary curriculum which emerged as part of the Great National Consultation. There are many new concepts. There are transverse ideas that underly the whole curriculum like culture of peace, gender equality, defense of the environment, etc. These are transversal themes that did not used to form part of the curriculum and now they do.

Another change is that the new curriculum is organized monthly. The educational diet that the pupils of each grade should receive is planned month by month. This takes place at the monthly TEPCEs. The new curriculum is organized in line with the Nicaraguan educational innovation known as the TEPCEs.

So there are a series of changes, of particularities, contained within the new curriculum as a result of this whole process of educational transformation which has been taking place in Nicaragua.

And I can assure you that several, if not all, of the transformations that are taking place within the Nicaraguan education system today are uniquely Nicaraguan. They have not been copied from a foreign educational manual or thought up by a foreign consultant. I can assure you that no consultants financed by international organizations have participated in this process. This is a process that has been created by Nicaraguans. Nicaragua's capacity in the field of education is vast. Nicaragua's cultural accumulation in the field of education is vast. And we have made use of this historical accumulation during the construction of the new model for Nicaraguan education.

You will not find an education system divided into nuclei like it is in Nicaragua in any other part of the world. In other words, the 1,324 Educational Nuclei in Nicaragua constitute an organizational model that does not appear in any other country.

The same goes for the TEPCEs which are our mechanism for planning and evaluating the curriculum across the country month by month. These workshops are based on the educational model introduced in Nicaragua during the first Sandinista government of the 80s. But this planning model does not exist in any other country.

The Participatory Revolution in Nicaraguan Education consists of multiple simultaneous reforms which are all articulated between each other and which all seek the same results which are justice and quality within the Nicaraguan education system. The concepts of the Participatory Revolution are Nicaraguan creations. They are concepts which have been created collectively with the participation of teachers, students, parents, NGOs specializing in education, etc. There are ten national education commissions which involve representatives from universities, social movements and NGOs who cooperate with the Ministry of Education without charge and who help to develop all the different aspects of the new education.

TcS: Changing the subject, I want to talk about something that took place a few years ago, during the government of Engineer Enrique Bolaños, when the Ministry of Education felt obliged to abandon the new curriculum that had been prepared about reproductive health and sexuality. It was assumed that the decision to abandon the new curriculum was the result of pressure from the Catholic Church Hierarchy. At that time the already established curriculum, based on the conservative vision of the Catholic Church, remained active. It was a curriculum that lacked appropriate information about matters like contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual diversity. Anger and disappointment were expressed at a national and international level as a result of these events.

I understand that as part of the transformation of the national curriculum during the last two years reforms have been made to the contents surrounding these issues. What is the Ministry of Education's current policy about the teaching of reproductive health and sexuality?

Miguel de Castilla: When we took on the Ministry we were given a manual on the subject which had been put together as a result of the controversy that you mention. This manual was drafted by a group of people, a group of consultants hired by the Ministry of Education after that controversy. So that manual was given to us and, before we put it to use, just like we did with the entire curriculum, we consulted it with 17,500 people.

Right now the manual is being taught as part of a pilot project. With the support of UNICEF we printed 500 copies of the manual so as to use it in a pilot project with students of the final year of secondary school. We wanted to hear opinions about the manual from teachers, parents and students.

Obviously our criteria on these issues are not similar to those on which previous manuals were based. Sexual and reproductive health are amply discussed in this new manual, as is the importance of using contraceptives to prevent AIDS.

The subject of AIDS is very, very important for the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education is organizing a national event surrounding the issue of AIDS during the first week of December in which numerous different colleges and schools will take part.

I personally took part in an international event in the City of Mexico last July where ministers of health and education from across Latin America got together to talk about the issue of AIDS and how to deal with the issue in school curriculae.

So we have been attending to these issues. In the direction of school counselling young people's sexuality is an issue that is covered. Young people are offered counselling about these matters in our schools and colleges.

Reproductive and sexual health are issues that actively involve us because we know about the problems of sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, teenage pregnancies. So we know that young people need a lot of sex education in order for our youth to practise their sexuality responsibly.

And with regards to the manual, we have not had any problems. We have introduced it as part of a pilot program and we expect to start massive reproduction of the manual in 2009 so that it becomes part of the new curriculum across the country.

TcS: In terms of adult education the government has been seen to prioritize the literacy campaign using the method Yo SíPuedo (Yes, I Can). Are other forms of adult education also being prioritized?

Miguel de Castilla: Yes. Coincidentally, Leonela Reyes who created the Yo, Sí Puedo method is in Nicaragua at the moment. Today Reyes' method is used across the world - it is used in almost all Latin American countries and also in countries like Angola. Doctor Reyes is currently in Nicaragua helping us to translate the Yo, Sí Puedo workbooks into the languages of the Miskitos and the Mayangnas which are indigenous populations located in the north Caribbean region of Nicaragua.

As well as the Yo Sí, Puedo method there are many other methods. Most notably the psychosocial method for adult education by Paulo Freire which was used during the Literacy Crusade in the 1980s. In Nicaragua there are many methods.

TcS: What options are there for those who finish the literacy course and want to continue their studies?

Miguel de Castilla: We do not stop after the literacy campaign. We hope to declare Nicaragua free of illiteracy next July. But after that the method continues. The follow up method is called Yo, Sí Puedo Seguir (Yes, I can continue).

Our aim is that by 2015 the entire previously illiterate adult population is not just able to read and write but is also studying towards their sixth grade of primary school. That is the Nicaraguan aim. This aim is not similar to the UN Millennium Goal in the field of Education. Nicaragua's aim goes way beyond the UN's goal. We hope that by 2015 the entire adult population is studying for their sixth grade and we also hope to have stamped out the origin of illiteracy which is a lack of primary education.

One of the errors of the neo liberal governments in Nicaragua were the charges in public schools. The school fees and other charges encouraged illiteracy in Nicaragua. Charging inside schools resulted in the exclusion of an enormous number of young people from the school system. And that exclusion resulted in a high rate of illiteracy in Nicaragua.

So we are fighting against illiteracy on two different battlefields. We are carrying out the National Literacy Campaign "From Martí to Fidel," but we are also working towards the inclusion of the greatest number of children possible in primary school education.

The way to eliminate illiteracy in a country in not through literacy campaigns. That is a mechanism which has to be used when the illness is already installed. The way to eliminate illiteracy is by creating universal access to primary education. So we are at the front of the struggle to eliminate illiteracy in Nicaragua with the hope that this is the last literacy campaign in the country's history.

TcS: The majority of organizations and institutions dedicated to development in impoverished countries around the world have concluded that one of the most effective ways of achieving a state of integrated development is through education programs for women. Do you agree with that conclusion?

Miguel de Castilla: That is crucial for us. Apart from the National Literacy Campaign the government promotes programs like Zero Usury and Zero Hunger, or the Food Production Bond, which exclusively benefit women. Several of the government's programs benefit women directly. If there is one sector of society that is given special attention and treatment as part of the Literacy Campaign it is the female population.

We understand that if we teach a woman to read and write we are doing more than just resolving the severe problem of her own illiteracy. Through her we are contributing to the solution of other problems in Nicaraguan homes. By teaching women to read and write we are nipping illiteracy in the bud.

So the Ministry of Education considers the importance of women's inclusion within our plans of attention to be crucial. 50% of matriculations in Nicaragua from preschool to secondary education, and even university, respond to female students. The proportion of female to male students is always around about 49% to 51%, or 50.5% to 49.5%. That tendency was established during the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s and has been maintained. And we actively promote the continuation of proportionally gender balanced matriculations.

TcS: My questions end there, Minister. I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to thank you for meeting with me and also to congratulate you and your colleagues for the recent announcement by the Organization of Educational Excellence for the Americas of its plan to award this year's Acknowledgment of Educational Excellence to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education.


Karla writes for

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